Kenny's Wood Fired Grill is designed to resemble a 1940s Chicago-style chophouse serving New England-style seafood, pumping Uptown's favorite mind-numbing spirit (Grey Goose) from frozen taps in a suburban location, pouring wine with French fries, hiding elegance behind self-promoting "artwork" and 30-something patrons wiggling through the room in low-rise jeans. In many respects, the new Addison restaurant seems like a scaled-down and toned-up Houston's.
Not necessarily a bad thing, really. The model for sustained popularity these days is something consistently greater than mediocrity but less than challenging.
At Kenny's this modest achievement begins at the beginning. Many Dallas restaurants expend their creative flair on the appetizer menu. Meals open with a wonderful, wild fusion of ingredients and flavors, then start a slow, inexorable slide downhill. Here, the home-smoked salmon is light with only a hint of burnt wood, paired with a pleasant aioli of caper and dill. There's nothing overpowering, just a simple, clean, satisfying starter. Wood-grilling lends a slight depth to a plate of oysters topped by shreds of Parmigiano-Reggiano. The piquant cheese is underscored by vague notes of smoke and bitterness from which emerges just enough of the shellfish to please oyster aficionados without threatening those who fear things scraped from the murk. Brie fondue initially tingles the palate, thanks to a touch of Gruyère and wine blended into the mix, then fades into a pleasant mellowness.
Hmmm...pleasant mellowness. Maybe the concept isn't so perplexing after all. Despite the strip-mall exterior, Kenny's surrounds patrons in warmth and simple elegance: liquor shelves glow, the pristine open kitchen teems with activity, brick and wood and tinted lighting close down the room. The clubby atmosphere provides intimacy without yielding the din and clatter that make people feel part of the crowd. On a Friday night visit waitstaff constantly brushed through the narrow passages between crowded tables, but individual conversations and the presentation of menu options wafted into a dull, manageable ambience. A few nights later several tables sat empty, yet liquid-infused noise from the cool bar space enlivened the scene. Seafood shares space on a single page with burgers, chicken and filet mignon--something for everyone.
Really, that's the genius of chef Kenny Bowers' menu. The best selections straddle that tenuous line between excellent and merely good, although certain items stand out. Our waiter singed a crock of French onion soup tableside (a dream for any pyro fanatics present) to a warm golden brown. Over the years we've sampled countless examples of this traditional bowl of date-killing bliss, all essentially diminished by unsubstantial yellow cheese. In this case burnt Gruyère gives a nutty, slightly pungent cover to the vegetal and salty broth, blending with progressive spoonfuls to enrich and expand on the flavors. French fries are sizzled in good old-fashioned beef tallow, a la McDonald's in the days of tie-dyed shirts and shag carpeting. For Gen X and Y types unfamiliar with the crisp, fatty sensation, there's really no way to fully explain. Each bite is rich and full, with an underlying sweetness that makes even the most hesitant touch of salt explode on your tongue.
Meanwhile, the worst items aren't that bad. Tuna steak paired with wasabi and ginger didn't melt away like a beautifully rare cut should and exhibited a disturbing tartness. It was difficult to distinguish the fish itself. On the other hand, we managed to tolerate the dish. Something called New England baked stuffed fish and listed as a Kenny's original proved less appealing. The mere mention of generic "fish" on a menu dedicated to specifics is enough to arouse suspicion, but we tried it out, anyway. When Kenny's opened they used Atlantic cod as the basis for a stuffing of shrimp, scallops and crab. This time of year, however, they settle for that blankest of slates, tilapia, which bakes firm and flaky, but essentially accepts whatever flavor is shaken, ladled or rubbed on. And in this case it disappeared completely under the weight of the seafood combo piled on top and a dousing of lemon butter. But that's not the problem.
Granted, we tried the stuffed fish on a Monday evening visit when chef Bowers turns control of his kitchen over to other staffers (a little test of consistency). Tiny, bland scallops and almost nonexistent crab detracted from the balance of flavors. Heavy use of crumbled Ritz crackers, sodden into an ugly and unpleasant gruel, also damaged the plate. Also that evening, cookies sandwiched in a dessert sundae were left in the kiln until they baked into solid cinder blocks. We thought about requesting a chisel but ended up scraping artificial ice something and whipped topping from the circular bricks.
Well, let's just assume they were artificial, since both presented a strong chemical taste. Although, to be fair, the wave of unnatural flavors we experienced could have been kiln residue.
Back to the plus side. Bowers is a fan of béarnaise. It appears with crab cakes and the tenderloin crostini, and it saved what they call Cajun fish--actually plump farm-raised redfish dusted lightly with Louisiana spices that react unfavorably to hickory smoke, transforming into bitterness. Ah, but the chef's rendition of béarnaise is creamy and complex. Pronounced flavors of tarragon, thyme and vinegar soften into the rich batter of egg yolk and butter, eventually coating your mouth. Suddenly every bite of anything, even Cajun-style redfish, tastes right. Covering "adult" mac and cheese liberally with white truffle oil has the same effect. A dense, earthy, soothing sensation envelops the pool of pasta, Gouda and ham, forcing them to slink into the background. It's one-dimensional, but who cares?
The side dishes we sampled were all worthwhile. Laced with sharp cheddar and smoky bacon, "Bubbies" potato cakes are crisp, slightly greasy and quite potent. Whoever this Bubbie is (we're imagining bib overalls and a truck stop), he knows his way around a short-order grill. Wood-grilled asparagus holds onto enough smoke to offset a sharp Asian vinaigrette nicely. And we've already raved about the fries.
Kenny's old-fashioned, evocative French fries may now rank as the best in Dallas.
Bouts with pure excellence end with the fries and béarnaise, but so be it. With few exceptions, the restaurant maintains an appealing level of quality and consistency. A pile of St. Louis pork ribs, slow-cooked over mild hickory to a fork-pulling tenderness and paired with a middle-of-the-road sauce, will awaken steadfast Texans to possibilities other than brisket. The clam chowder is a tad on the pasty side and skimps a little when it comes to the delicate strips of quahog. Still, it's a warm and thick serving with an undercurrent of pepper, neither outstanding nor disappointing. Salads work nicely, the wedge, in particular, thanks to Roquefort and Maytag blue cheese puréed into a dressing that calms the edges of both.
Wine ranges between $20 and $40 per bottle, the bar is efficient and service not even close to stuffy. On one visit they trotted out entrées before clearing soup and salad plates from our table, but otherwise waitstaff maneuver through the room quietly, converse with ease and rarely interrupt. Though seafood forms part of the theme, the place offers four different steaks, the aforementioned ribs, chicken and something called a Sterling Silver steak sandwich, which we opted against after watching a petite blond woman at another table heft, with both hands, the meat and brie monstrosity.
Oh well, why not bend a little to Texas convention at a Chicago chophouse with New England seafood and Midwestern ribs dressed in Uptown digs?
So our verdict: Just about every menu item is accessible. If you like Houston's--and who doesn't--you'll also appreciate Kenny's Wood Fired Grill.
5000 Belt Line Road, Suite 775, Addison, 972-392-9663. Open 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Late-night menu until 1:30 a.m., Tuesday-Saturday.
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